The Ash-Born Boy – VE Schwab

ash-born boy cover

“Once, long ago, there was a man and a woman, and a boy, and a village full of people. And then the village burned down.”

I wasn’t wholly enamoured with The Near Witch, but this short prequel story fleshes out one of the characters to the point that I wish I’d read it first. ‘Cole’ gives a brief telling of his tragic backstory in TNW, but here we get to see how his not-so-normal life came to the end that leads him to Near.

Written just a year after TNW, the improvement in the characterisation and writing style is already apparent. Finally, I find myself caring a little about some of the players.

However, I still can’t wholly recommend this book, or say I enjoyed it. It’s well written, it’s a great little story, but I find the world that contains Near and Dale unpleasantly dark and cruel. Fear of witchcraft is one thing, but torturing a teenager – ‘cutting to the bone’, holding him down forcefully enough that his wrist is broken. No, no no – sorry, but this felt… icky. Added to the back of a book where the rapey would-be-suitor has no punishment and practically a happy ending – urgh, not for me.

So. Decent short story. If you’ve read The Near Witch this is worth dipping in to; if you plan on reading TNW you might even want to start with this to give one of the characters more oomph. But for my tastes, it’s just got a nasty streak for the sake of it that I can’t appreciate at all.

eBook: 61 pages / 9 chapters
First published: 2012
Series: short story prequel to The Near Witch
Read from 14th-15th May 2020

My rating: 6/10

Dolor’s Legs – Frances Hardinge

dolor's legs cover

“A tale told by an old woman while she washed her clothes in a spring.”

Having just finished the wonderful Deeplight, it was lovely to pick up this short story set in the same world. It’s not linked to the events in the main book, but rather a little tale from the past involving one of the hideous sea gods, Dolor the many-legged. And oh, the explanation for the name is not what you might think!

It’s a very brief story, and to be honest I wasn’t sure it was anything other than ‘nice’ to read – until the sort-of twist at the end where suddenly it was a beast of a whole different colour! Much like the main book, it has a lot to say about human psychology, it just manages it in a few sentences after a bit of almost misdirecting background.

You don’t need to have read Deeplight (but it’s great, so why wouldn’t you?!), this would stand alone albeit without any context, but I think it’s meant more as a lovely bonus for those who have read and enjoyed the larger tale.

Wondering now if there’ll be more short stories, or a sequel – either would be great, based on this! 🙂

NetGalley eARC: short story
First published: 2020
Series: Deeplight
Read on 4th May 2020

My rating: 8/10

The Last Wish – Andrzej Sapkowski

last wish cover

“She came to him towards morning.”

Witchers. Genetically modified monster hunters. The Last Wish is a series of stories following Geralt of Rivia, no longer quite human, enhanced by training and potions into the perfect assassin.

I perhaps foolishly bought the whole series (it was on offer!) before starting this book, and then struggled to get much into it. Then I decided to give the TV show a go, and having those visuals really helped, and second attempt I enjoyed the book a lot more.

It still stayed ‘enjoyable’ rather than ‘wow’. Events are set out in a series of short stories, linked by a framing tale. However, while interesting, that didn’t help me with grasping time lines or getting a good sense of the characters – hence, I think, the need to in effect have the two attempts at the story. If you’ve already seen the adaptation, or perhaps even played the games, you might not have the same issues.

And the stories will be pretty familiar if you’ve seen the show: most are straight adaptations. However, some things are subtly (or not) altered, which makes for some interesting changes in motivation, for example.

If it sounds like I’m saying the TV show is better than the book, that’s not wholly what I’m driving at – simply that my grasp of the story was improved with the duel approaches. Certainly, I feel that this book is merely a starting place, and it’s clear that a lot more of the world and the life of Geralt is yet to be discovered. In fact, I’m wondering now if the advice to start here, with the chronologically earlier stories, was a bit of a mistake and if I should have jumped in with the first published volume, or first full book (not short stories).

While I’m not completely sure I would have picked up the rest of the series based on reading this, I’m kind of glad that I already have them and thus will keep going. I think this world will benefit from a slightly deeper immersion.

Kindle: 288 pages / 13 chapters
First published: 1993
Series: The Witcher book 0.5
Read from 15th-25th March 2020

My rating: 7/10

Made to Order: Robots and Revolution – various

made to order cover

“Robot: a machine resembling a human being and able to replicate certain human movements and functions automatically.”

Robots and automatons are a staple of science fiction, but in the age of AI, internet, and virtual reality, it’s nice to get an updated take (or several) on the sub-genre.

My only complaint about this collection is that sci-fi (and fantasy) is a difficult genre to do justice to in short story format. There’s not enough space for world building, so the writers have to either take shortcuts – use a familiar-ish kind of setting – or as sadly too often happens here, leave the reader a little frustrated with the brevity of the whole thing. But hey: wanting more isn’t the worst complaint! 🙂

My favourite of the lot is Peter Hamilton’s Sonnie’s Union, in which humans can pilot fearsome biomech units – a bit Avatar, a bit Real Steel, all brought together perfectly. I was amused by what I assume is an in-joke, having the baddy a Welshman called Alastair (Reynolds?) 😉 I also very much liked Fairy Tales for Robots, which briefly looks at a dozen familiar stories and points out the ‘robot-ness’ of them.

There’s a huge variety of approaches taken across the sixteen tales. From the light-hearted ice-skating robot, to the extremely dark, including mistreated child robots, the horror of video surveillance from the watcher’s point of view, and even a take on religion – wasn’t entirely sure about that last one, tbh, might skirt a little close to … something ‘hmm’.

Different tales are told from the robot/AI’s POV, or a human’s, and there’s even a second-person POV that feels like a video game, with a very dark twist.

Overall, it’s a fun and intriguing mix. As I said, perhaps a little frustrating to only get little slivers of the better stories, and if I’m being honest not many really jumped out and wowed me, but still a decent collection and worth dipping into.

Collection curated by Jonathan Strahan, containing:

  • A Glossary of Radicalization – Brooke Bolander
  • Dancing with Death – John Chu
  • Brother Rifle – Daryl Gregory
  • Sonnie’s Union – Peter F Hamilton
  • The Endless – Saad Z Hossain
  • An Elephant Never Forgets – Rich Larson
  • Idols – Ken Liu
  • Sin Eater – Ian R MacLeod
  • The Translator – Annalee Newitz
  • The Hurt Pattern – Tochi Onyebuchi
  • Chiaroscuro in Red – Suzanne Palmer
  • Bigger Fish – Sarah Pinkster
  • A Guide for Working Breeds – Vina Jie-Min Prasad
  • Polished Performance – Alastair Reynolds
  • Fairy Tales for Robots – Sofia Samatar
  • Test 4 Echo – Peter Watts

NetGalley eARC: 273 pages / 16 short stories
First published: 2020
Series: none
Read from 22nd February – 15th March 2020

My rating: 7/10

Behind the Sun, Above the Moon – various

behind the sun cover

“In the beginning, before Humans had claimed the stars as their own, they held hands as they watched lights streak across the sky and called it Magic.”

This is a collection of nine short sci-fi stories, each with an LGBTQ slant. I’ve always thought, given the level of fantastical imagination in the genre, it feels odd to stick to ‘he’ and ‘she’ and things that were considered ‘normal’ 50 years ago o.O So yes, we have a princess marrying not just one but two women, a non-binary witch falling for a star, and pronouns from ‘they’ to ‘xie’.

Each story does come with content warnings, for violence or body horror, etc. To be honest, the BDSM and web-cam prostitution-y stuff added very little for me to the respective stories (Weave the DarkLost/Found), and I found these the weakest in the collection probably because of that. Still, the magic system in Weave the Dark was intriguing.

For the rest, my only issue was the usual one with a good short story: I want more! There are so many fascinating worlds into which we are giving the briefest of tantalising glimpses. I could easily see longer works in the universes of Ink and Stars – where tattoos are used as a form of magic – or From Dusk to Dying Sun, which has such a great atmosphere – a bit X-Files, a lot weird, somehow quite chilling. Twice-Spent Comet has a different take on a futuristic penal system, with inmates used to mine asteroids. The plot didn’t grab me quite as much as the world-building, however, and is the first of several tales here that is about a relationship with a star – as in, a celestial being, not a famous person!

Awry with Dandelions is almost more fantasy than sci-fi, and was a nice change of pace. The main character finds themselves linked to another person, a continent away, every night and sometimes during the day, but only for 30 seconds or so at a time – enough to be horribly disruptive but not long enough to do anything useful with.

A few stories reminded me of other things. Horologium updates a classic – I won’t spoil it! – while Death Marked could almost have been a (Iain M Banks) Culture story (which is high praise!).

Overall, this is a strong collection of short work. Not all of them appealed to me as much as the rest, but that’s the beauty of short stories – there’s something for everyone! And absolutely no shortage of fascinating ideas here, well told.

Contents:

  1. Twice-Spent Comet – Ziggy Schutz
  2. From Dusk to Dying Sun – Paige S Allen
  3. Lost/Found – Brooklyn Ray
  4. Awry with Dandelions – J S Fields
  5. The Far Touch – S R Jones
  6. Ink and Stars – Alex Harrow
  7. Horologium – Emmett Nahil
  8. Death Marked – Sara Codair
  9. Weave the Dark, Weave the Light – Anna Zabo

NetGalley eARC: 329 pages / 9 short stories
First published: 17 Feb 2020
Series: none
Read from 10th-16th February 2020

My rating: 8/10

The Allingham Minibus – Margery Allingham

allingham minibus cover

“Dornford killed Fellowes somewhere in Australia.”

I’ve written before about being a fan of Campion and the period-gentle kind of mystery. Here we have a collection of short stories, some with the famous detective, others a little more random. All in all, a rather good mix!

We open with a foreword from Agatha Christie – what better stamp of approval can another mystery writer of the time get, really?

The first story surprised me, as I didn’t know the author dabbled in horror. This is a perfect mystery-come-terror story, which I can wholly imagine being told around a campfire. And, despite the age (so much is reused, and loses something from the familiarity) still gave me a fun little chill. The rest of the stories mix this kind of ‘ghost story’ with mysteries, and a large dose of whimsy.

The strength of the writing is clear. There’s a lovely mix of cosy period elements, throwbacks to more genteel times, but with mysteries that genuinely kept me wondering where it was going next, whether they involved ageing, publicity-hunger actors, or church men who aren’t very godly, haunted parrot cages (!), or a more domestic tale of a couple’s last evening before an agreed divorce.

The Campion stories are scattered between, few of them and one I’d read before (in Campion at Christmas), but always a pleasure to imagine the character as portrayed in the TV series I loved.

Overall: an old-fashioned but nicely so collection of mysteries and light chills, perfect for the season – and beyond!

NetGalley eARC: 269 pages / 18 short stories
First published: 1973 and most recently rereleased October 2019
Series: Campion and other non-series stories
Read from 7th-27th October 2019

My rating: 7.5/10

Urban Enemies- various

urban enemies cover

“Villains have all the fun – everyone knows that – and this anthology takes you on a wild ride through the dark side!”

The idea of this collection really appealed to me: a series of short stories set in ‘famous’ worlds, but giving the author a chance to explore the baddie’s point of view. I thought it’d be a good chance to explore some series that I haven’t yet tried, as well as a few that were familiar but from a very different angle.

Alas, it didn’t quite work out for me – as the very long gap in my reading probably shows! There’s nothing at all wrong with these stories, the writing is all very well done. However, not being familiar with most of the worlds being (re)visited here, I struggled to get in to many of the stories. They probably work very well if you’ve a familiarity with the series already, but the new-to-me and unusual viewpoints weren’t a great place to start.

The one series I am very au fait with would be the Dresden Files, but alas (again) this story didn’t do much for me. I know the characters, but the tale just didn’t grab me. I’d expected more, I think, as quite often the villains are if not the most then certainly often highly intriguing characters, but I just didn’t find myself hooked.

On the other hand, there were a few that worked despite my lack of prior knowledge. Seanan McGuire is an author I’ve been hearing great things about for a while, and her contribution here – paranormal creatures that look human but can make people do anything they want – did exactly what I expected this collection to do: made me want to reach for the main series.

Overall, there’s nothing bad about this anthology, and I’m a bit disappointed it didn’t click more with me. On the other hand, there are definitely some intriguing ideas here, including a pocket dimension that looks like a film back-lot, and a (I assume) fallen angel turned monster with a pretty good explanation even in such a short tale. If you’re familiar with any of the ‘worlds’ already then the alternate viewpoint could well be even more interesting.

The authors/series here are: Jim Butcher/Dresden Files, Kelley Armstrong/Cainsville, Seanan McGuire/October Daye, Kevin Hearn/The Iron Druid Chronicles, Jonathan Maberry/Joe Ledger, Lilith Saintcrow/Jill Kismet, Carrie Vaughn/Kitty Norville, Joseph Nassise/Templar Chronicles, Domino Finn/Black Magic Outlaw, Steven Savile/Glasstown, Caitlin Kittredge/Hellhound Chronicles, Jeffrey Somers/Ustari Cycle, Sam Witt/Pitchfork County, Craig Schaefer/Daniel Faust, Jon F Merz/Lawson Vampire, Faith Hunter/Jane Yellowrock, Diana Pharoah Francis/Horngate Witches.

NetGalley eARC: 448 pages / 17 stories
First published: 2017
Series: short stories from various SFF series
Read from 5th July 2017 – 12th June 2019 (put it down in the middle, for a loooong stretch!)

My rating: 6/10

Bound – Mark Lawrence

bound cover

“‘So what, Nona Grey, is X?'”

This short story takes place between the events of Grey Sister and Holy Sister in the Book of the Ancestor trilogy. You don’t need to read it to enjoy the main series. Indeed, you’d need to be quite the fan to get this, as it’s quite costly for its brevity – I would have baulked totally if the rest of the series hadn’t come to me as review copies.

The aftermath of the events at the end of the former book aren’t described until flashbacks in book 3, but we pick up with the novices back in Sweet Mercy convent. Someone is poisoning the younger members of the Sis nobility, and Sister Kettle is determined to find out who. Who better than Ara to go undercover, back in the society role she left behind?

There’s nothing to dislike about this story. It deepens the bond between Nona and Ara that we’ve seen along the way, and explains a little more about ring fighter Regol’s place in the ongoing story.

That said, it’s a bit of an outtake in my opinion. You don’t need to read it for the rest of the series – and, that in itself detracts from the tale. Still, one for fans, and I am definitely that!

kindle: 49 pages
First published: 2018
Series: Book of the Ancestor book 2.5 (of 3)
Read from 17th-18th April 2019

My rating: 7/10

Campion at Christmas – Margery Allingham

campion at christmas cover

“Sir Leo Pursuivant, the Chief Constable, had been sitting in his comfortable study after a magnificent lunch and talking heavily of the sadness of Christmas while his guest, Mr Campion, most favoured of this large house-party, had been laughing at him gently.”

I’ve always had a soft spot for Campion, after enjoying the tv adaptations when I was younger. Took me a long time to get around to any of the books – starting with The Crime at Black Dudley – and to be honest I’ve still only read a couple. However, a set of four short stories from Margery Allingham, based at Christmas, just sounded lovely!

And, they are quite sweet. Three of the four, On Christmas Day in the Morning, The Man with the Sack, and Word in Season,  involve Albert Campion, two of those solving mini mysteries and the other one a slice of family life with a very very large dollop of whimsy. I enjoyed all of these, picturing Peter Davison in the role, and who doesn’t love dogs with the last one? 🙂

The other story, Happy Christmas, the second in the collection, is a different beast. While clearly about Christmas, it doesn’t feature Campion and to be honest I was left scratching my head a little over what it was all about. Nothing wrong with it, it’s still a sweet little slice of period frippery, just not entirely sure what I was missing. It’s the oldest story, too, published in 1937 compared with the 1960s for the others.

If you’re a fan of Campion, this is a short but lovely little compilation of cosy mystery niceness that conjures images of a more gentile time.

NetGalley eARC: 63 pages / 4 short stories
First published: 2018 (as collection), 1937-1965 (originally in various magazines)
Series: Campion short stories
Read from 16th-17th December 2018

My rating: 7.5/10

Low Chicago – George RR Martin (ed)

low chicago cover

“It had been one hundred and forty-two years since John Nighthawk had been inside the Palmer House, and then it had been the earlier incarnation of the luxurious Chicago hotel, known simply as the Palmer.”

It seems very odd to jump into a series at book 25, but this isn’t the kind of story where that matters too much. Sure, I had to do a quick google for the underlying premise: an alien virus hits the Earth, and while most of the infected die, those that survive are altered. Known as the Wild Card event, most of those whose ‘cards turned’ become ‘jokers’ – cursed with some kind of abnormality, like the woman with rabbit ears. Some are ‘deuces’, granted low-level, party-trick kind of powers. But a very few are the ‘aces’, those with real superpowers.

The whole series has been collections of short stories, and this latest volume is no different. We start with a framing tale – very Canterbury Tales 😉 – of a high stakes poker game. Each player is allowed to take two bodyguards in with them, be that physical muscle or ace-skills, or both!

The human mutation premise isn’t exactly novel, but I think it’s a nice take on things here, feeling different enough from, say, X-Men.

When something goes awry during the card game, it turns out that one of the superpowers in the room is the ability to send people to different time periods. So, with regular interludes back to our framing tale, we then get a series of stories written by different authors detailing the ‘adventures’ of one or more of the party, flung into the distant or recent past.

I’m not sure I would have noticed the different authors if it hadn’t been made clear at the start, but once pointed out then yes, I caught a few differences in writing styles. That works well, though, given the range of eras the stories are set in: Jurassic to 1980s, with stops at several quite famous events – and with a few famous faces, to boot!

I really enjoyed both the premise of the stories here, and the individual time travel tales. There were a few times when I thought, “This is probably a reference to a previous story”, but nothing to detract too much. If I did have a complaint, it’s that this book gives a bit of a glimpse at a clearly well-established universe, but we don’t get to spend a great deal of time with character development or deeper explanations.

Still, that just gives me an even bigger reason to check out the rest of the series!

NetGalley eARC: 432 pages / 7 short stories plus framing tale
First published: 2018
Series: Wild Cards book 25
Read from 3rd-10th June 2018

My rating: 8/10